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Saudi Arabia ‘close’ to US defence pact and arms deal

John Kirby, the White House national security communications adviser, said Saudi Arabia and the US were 'closer than we’ve ever been' to a deal Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
John Kirby, the White House national security communications adviser, said Saudi Arabia and the US were 'closer than we’ve ever been' to a deal
  • Bilateral accord ‘near final’
  • F-35 fighter jet under discussion
  • White House seeks assurances on China

Saudi Arabia could be close to a security pact with the United States that would enable the kingdom to buy arms, potentially including the sought-after F-35 fighter jet, and obtain some form of US defence guarantee, White House officials said this week. 

John Kirby, the president’s national security spokesperson, said on May 20 that the two sides were “closer than we’ve ever been” on a bilateral agreement that is now “near final” – repeating language used by other Biden administration officials in recent weeks. 

The talks are focused on a bilateral accord that would give Saudi Arabia some form of US assurance to come to its defence, including access to advanced American weapons such as the F-35, Reuters reported

The gain for Washington would be a Saudi promise to slow down on Chinese investment, including in arms. 

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman raised the issue in an American television interview last September, saying he preferred to continue with US arms rather than turn to China but wanted a defence pact. 

Only Nato states have guaranteed mutual defence arrangements, while Saudi Arabia has had close political and military ties with the United States for decades. 

Washington temporarily stationed troops and anti-missile batteries near Riyadh following the 2019 drone and missile attack on Aramco facilities, thought to have been carried out by Iran

Saudi Arabia was disappointed at the time that the administration of President Donald Trump did not take further steps against Iran. It is not clear how much further a bilateral pact now would go.  

The comments from US officials appeared to detach the US-Saudi talks from parallel discussions on Saudi-Israeli normalisation, which have continued despite the October 7 attacks and war in Gaza but have become bogged down in the question of a Palestinian state. 

Anthony Blinken, the US secretary of state, told Congress on May 21 that given Saudi insistence on calm in Gaza and concrete steps towards such a state, Israel must “decide whether it wants to proceed and take advantage of the opportunity”. 

Nuclear talks sidelined

The US-Saudi talks also seem to have set aside the Saudi nuclear energy programme, which was previously rolled into the mix. Riyadh has delayed awarding contracts to build a plant while it holds out for consent to appoint the US company Centrus Energy. 

However, the need for congressional approval could bring down a deal for the F-35, as well as US approval of Saudi nuclear plans. United States law requires Israel’s “qualitative military edge” to be maintained in arms sales. 

Such complications caused the UAE to give up on its pursuit of the F-35 and opt for France’s Rafale fighter instead. 

“Nothing’s really concrete yet. The US and Saudi seem to be almost there but there are complications,” said US defence analyst Ted Karasik.

“I think the F-35 talk is just that and not much else is there – because they don’t really need it.”

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